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One of the least known subjects of the revolutionary period is the vociferous defence of Ukraine’s population and resources against centralized Russian Bolshevik depradation by Ukraine’s small, but ideologically sophisticated, group of revolutionary Marxists. In particular, Mykhailo Tkachenko, Andryi Richytsky and Vasyl Shakhrai.  In practical terms, unlike their later foreign communist counterparts in China and Asia, they had little impact. They failed in their attempt to lead the massive anti-Bolshevik uprisings of 1919 and channel that national-liberation struggle leftwards – as Mao Tse Tung later did in China. As far as is known, their two organizations, the Ukrainian left-SD  Independendists [Nezalezhnyky], from which later stemmed the Ukrainian Communist Party [UKP], counted no more 3000 members. The most that can be said about this group is that their criticism of Bolshevik policies, alongside that of some senior Bolshevik party members, influenced Lenin to significantly revise aspects of  Russian policies towards Ukraine in December 1919.  Nonetheless, their critique of Bolshevik rule remained valid until the collapse of the USSR and deserves attention today in light of the centenary of Ukraine’s revolutions, when Russian neo-imperialism again threatens Ukraine’s population and resources. Although Ukrainian communist leaders addressed letters to Lenin, there are no known responses to them either by him, or other senior Bolshevik leaders. For reasons unknown, theoretical confrontation with Ukrainian Marxists apparently remained the preserve of Ukraine’s local Bolsheviks in the Russian party’s branch sub-unit, the Communist Party of Ukraine [KPbU]. In addition, the local Bolsheviks seem to have published almost all their rebuttals and condemnations in only one or two of their newspapers – thus giving their Ukrainian rivals’ views as little publicity as possible. 


                     In April 1919 two issues of the Independentists newspaper Chervonyi prapor, carried two articles signed by a Hryts Sokyra. This was the pseudonym of Vasyl Shakhrai1 Shakhrai together with Serhyi Mazlakh, as members of  the Bolshevik  party in Ukraine had written Do Khvyli. Shcho diiet’sia na Ukraini i z Ukrainoiu in December 19182 . In December 1917 Shakhrai had been the first to use the term “Ukrainian Communist Party,” when he proposed this as the name Ukraine’s Bolsheviks should  adopt for  their organization. However, it was members of the left wing of the Ukrainian Social-Democractic Labour Party  who formed the Ukrainian Communist Party (UCP - Ukr. Ukapisty) in January 1920. In 1919 in Saratov, under the pseudonym Skorovstansky, Shakhrai also published Revoliutsiia na Ukraine and an introduction to a Ukrainian translation of some of Lenin’s articles on national issues. There, he  criticized the leader and pointed out that while the revolution fully confirmed that the theory of the right of nations to self-determination was valid, party practice did not reflect that theory3.  Do Khvyli condemned Bolshevik policies in Ukraine and became the ideological basis of Ukrainian communism. Georgii Piatakov on March 9, shortly after he became Party Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), ordered Do Khvyli removed from bookstores and expelled the authors from the party4 As his party’s  propaganda commissar, on April 5  he dismissed Do Khvyli  as “a rotten book showing how not to approach the national question, and its authors as renegade nationalists.”  He continued, the book was so badly written that it was impossible to read and almost impossible to understand5.

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               Shakhrai returned to Ukraine in the spring of 1919. A friend of the family Serhyi  Davydenko (pseudo. Domazar), who was in Shakhrai’s native village at the time, confirmed he did not go there and claimed  his family was convinced he was later  murdered by the Bolsheviks 6  Anatoly Richytsky, co-founder of the UCP, during his interrogation in November 1933, related he had met with Shakhrai somewhere in right-bank Ukraine that spring. This had been at a meeting where some  Independentists  split from the party because they opposed its decision to back the mass anti- Bolshevik uprising, after which, Shakhrai returned to the left-bank.  At the UCP founding Congress in  January 1920,  Richytsky stated in his opening address that Shakhrai “during the revolution” worked together with other  party leaders. At time,  he was thought to be in the Kuban.  Richytsky noted that messengers sent there to tell him about the conference had been unable to locate him. Shakhrai himself had written  in March 1919 that he would be committing himself to organizing a “powerful Ukrainian Communist Party” 7.

           The prospects for an independent Ukrainian Communist Party, to replace the CPU, the Ukrainian provincial branch of the Russian Communist Party (RCP),  seemed propitious  that March8. The formation of the UCP  was to take place on March 30 at  the Independentist Party Congress.  Dissatisfaction with Bolshevik rule was widespread both in villages and cities and some Ukrainians in the CPU leadership seemed to support the idea of an independent Ukrainian party. A motion at the CPU Conference that March to co-operate with all pro-Soviet left-wing parties was defeated by only 5 votes.  The planned congress did not take place, however, as  on March 25, Bolshevik leaders arrested  Independentist leaders  in Kyiv. They were released without charge after 5 days.  The presumable reason for their arrest was to prevent the congress convening 9.

               In April of that year,  Shakhrai wrote two articles for the Independentist newspaper condemning Ukraine’s Bolshevik government, and in particular, Georgii Piatakov who then, as Commissar for Propaganda, had just unleashed a campaign against the Independentists10 .Piatakov  opposed  liberation-separatist nationalism and represented majority opinion within the CPU. He considered Ukraine part of Russia  and had little sympathy for Ukrainian national ambitions. That March, at the 8th RCP Conference he  and Bukharin opposed including  the Right to National Self Determination in the party program. Absolute centralization was imperative and no single proletariat of any country could have an absolute right to self-determination they argued.  All revolutionary proletarians needed forceful guidance from the Russian party to hold power. Lenin disagreed and retorted  that if party leaders ignored national issues, they would foment opposition and present the RCP in non-Russian territories  as an aggressor. The conference supported Lenin but issued no regulations or instructions. The final  resolution included only a moral exhortation for the proletariat of oppressor nations  to be considerate and attentive to surviving national feelings among the proletariat of oppressed nations11. In any case, shortly after the Congress,  Lenin and the RCP Central Committee  decided  to “fuse” Ukraine with Russia 12. The move  formalized  Bolshevik Ukraine’s already existing dependency on Russia and the RCP at the time as a “republic,” but without  independent army, party, bank, currency or ministries and  an economy controlled by Russia’s Supreme Economic Council 13. Whether Shakhrai had been  aware of the preceding resolutions and discussions, much of which were secret,  or doubts within the CPU concerning the decision, is unknown 14.

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           On April 3rd in  Kommunist,  Piatakov explained that in Ukraine, where the national independence movement was “counter-revolutionary” because it was led by a “bourgeoisie,” that bourgeoisie had taken to use soviet slogans to win support. Piatakov included the Ukrainian left-SDs within this “bourgeoisie.”  A week later, in line with the 8th  Congress resolution about “consideration” and Lenin’s criticism, Piatakov wrote  an extended article titled: “Problems of National Liberation.” Criticized by Lenin for opposing national concessions, he began with remarks about dialectics and relativity necessarily leading to changes in  party political positions that could not be regarded as absolute.  Then, in accord with Lenin’s comments and contrary to his own earlier statements, he explained that party comrades in Ukraine had to show more respect for Ukrainian language and culture. They should not behave like black-hundred Russian chauvinists because that only intensified nationalist reaction. He regretted that only “the leading element of the workers and peasants in Ukraine” were sophisticated enough to realize that it was only the Russian bourgeoisie and landowners that had been  oppressors, and not Russian workers. This legacy of national distrust had to be overcome, but a separate Ukrainian soviet state led by its own party was not the way. He specified that although Ukrainians had been oppressed, Ukraine was a not colony of the Russian empire that should separate. Like most Bolsheviks, he restricted the issue of nationality to language use. In a second article, “Liars,” written in response to Shakhrai’s criticism (below), Piatakov characterized the Independentists as no better than Russian Black-Hundreds and claimed it was unjust to accuse him of categorically rejecting  the possibility of national proletariat organizations15.

           In the same two issues,  Piatakov’s  Ukrainian associate,  Evhen Kasianenko (pseud. Larik),  wrote  critiques of Shakhrai and the Independentists as “petty bourgeois” representatives of rich peasants, concerned only with securing their class interests within a national state. To do that and win support, he explained, they resorted to subterfuge and labeled what was a national bourgeois counter-revolution, a socialist national revolution. To that end they also tried to create national organizations of the proletariat  and separate socialist states. Larik claimed his Ukrainian rivals failed to understand that there could be only one party because all proletariats had the same class interests. “Proletarian centralization” he continued, was  totally unlike “bourgeois centralization” as, by definition, no socialist republic could possibly be subordinated to another: “centralization is the basic cosmic law and mother of social life.” The world communist revolution had to encompass the entire world and join the proletariat of all countries in one “political association.”  He did not use the word state here, because, in his definition, a state was an organization through which the rich ruled the poor.  In three other articles, he specified, “the independence of the Ukrainian Republic is only a Ukrainian bourgeois slogan,” as were the notions of a Ukrainian  or national socialist revolution,  and national organizations of the proletariat propagated by the Ukrainian left-SDs. Since all workers had a single class interest they could have only one party. On the eve of the planned founding UCP conference, Larik warned left SDs not to use the term communist and to change the  title of their newspaper – which he claimed the Ukrainians had stolen from “us internationalists.” He told them to publicly renounce  the  phrase “independence of the Ukrainian proletariat” or face a revolutionary tribunal 16.

            Shakhrai replied to Piatakov and Larik in the April 17 and 24 issues of  Chervonyi prapor under the pseudonym Sokyra17 It is unknown where he was, but given the speed of the reply he may well have been in Kyiv – in which case he may also have penned more unsigned articles in the paper responding  to other Bolshevik attacks on the Independentists.  His signed articles noted that the national question could not be reduced to cultural matters, and that Piatakov’s articles were totally at odds with his earlier statements both before and during the 8th Congress, and Bolshevik policy at the time.

             In the first article, Shakhrai sarcastically highlighted that Piatakov himself was the prime example of the kind of Bolshevik that Lenin had criticized, and, that his comments about some Bolsheviks behaving like black hundreds applied best to himself.  Shakhrai cited the second point from the RCP Program adopted by the 8th congress about the right of political independence and full equality for nations recognized as colonized and unequal. He then pointed out that Piatakov and those in charge of Ukraine “do not recognize that right either in practice, while some, among whom is Piatakov, in theory either!!! [sic]” Shakhrai observed that Piatakov chastized   “communists in Ukraine” for vestiges of “great Russian nationalism.” But that only confirmed that these “communists” were but a branch of the Russian party in Ukraine, thus foreigners to Ukraine, as by definition,  Ukrainian communists could not possibly be afflicted by vestiges of “great Russian nationalism.” What could such people, Shakhrai asked, possibly tell anyone about rights of nations to self-determination and equality? He then summarized Piatakov’s speech at the 8th Congress where he had categorically rejected any right of national self-determination, and reminded readers that policy in Ukraine was enacted precisely according to that opinion. Printing party newspapers in Ukraine did not resolve the national issue, which is centered on the issue of  the statehood of the Ukrainian nation – something Piatakov claimed to support in his post-Congress article. Referring to the fate of Do Khvyli, Shakhrai notes “its author” was exiled and the book removed from circulation. He then cited the pre-war Bolshevik position  on national rights that affirmed assertions of national equality were meaningless without the freedom to agitate for separation. How in Piatakov’s opinion, did such agitation engender the trust he claimed had to be established between the working populations of Russia and Ukraine? The Russian Bolshevik  repression of Ukrainian national interests was only an instance of the general “Ugrumburg methods [Ugiumburgcheevskie sposoby]” of rule  that Piatakov’s subordinates were using in Ukraine.  In short,  Piatakov’s condemnation of such methods was  hypocrisy 18. Rather than talking internationalism and practicing chauvinism, Shakhrai advised Piatakov  he would do better to talk chauvinism and practice internationalism. He concludes, paraphrasing one of Lenin’s quips from the 8th Congress: “Scratch all the ‘communists of Ukraine’…and you will see these are Great Russian chauvinists.”

           In the second article, he developed his argument noting the issue at hand concerned whether or not Ukraine would  exist as a political-state entity with the right to secede; something that the “communist of Ukraine” with “vestiges of great Russian nationalism” prefer to ignore. The fact that someone like Piatakov could, supposedly, support Lenin and  the 8th Congress resolutions, while being responsible for policies doing the exact opposite, meant that the phrase internationalism would remain just that, a phrase that would result in nothing. To make his point, Shakhrai noted that events surrounding the Brest Litovsk treaty showed that Lenin, who thought in terms of practicality rather than slogans and urged signing, had been correct. That illustrated that leaders had to make practical decisions after taking power. Lenin overcame those in his party who could not stop thinking in terms of abstract slogans and was proven right. But, while Lenin overcame that inclination in dealing with Germans, in Ukraine,  the practice of dealing with problems, in this case  national ones, in terms of slogans remained. Thus, Piatakov  beautifully went on about “internationalism” as  a slogan. But in practice, nothing had changed.  Soviet Ukraine remained a Russian colony. The “communists of Ukraine” remained a branch of the Russian communists created to keep Ukraine in a colonial status “according to local circumstances.” He then cited Lenin’s comments from the 8th Congress warning that if a revolutionary socialist proletariat tried to sit on a foreign spine, it would inevitably spark a national revolution against its own socialist state. Communist imperialism was no different from any other imperialism and  the proletariat never was holy nor innocent of  imperialist sins,  wrote Shakhrai. 

           In his reply to Larik, Shakhrai dismissed his condemnation of national states, national proletariats and parties as manifest nonsense. He pointed out that the arguments for such institutions  had their origins in Do Khvyli when its author belonged to the Bolshevik party and had nothing to do with the Independentists who did not yet exist. He then  demonstrated what Larik wrote  about states, was at odds with Marx and Lenin. Shakhrai explained that Larik had forgotten about the role of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the transition to socialism and the right of nations to self-determination – which involved  secession and statehood.  Larik’s internationalism hid the sin of occupation. 

           Shakhrai’s  arguments had no impact on policy. That May, Piatakov elaborated the Bolshevik position on Ukraine in accordance with the “fusion” policy. He wrote that the notion of an independent proletarian republic was absurd. One could not divide the proletariat according to nationality and then build independent states. Capitalism had created a global economy that had been unaffected by the collapse of the bourgeoisie and their empires, and the ongoing state regulation of the economy that still existed was vital. In the age of “huge state-capitalist trusts,” independent small states were an impossibility. “A Soviet state as an economically separate national state is reactionary.” If local national forces overcame centralist forces, the new Soviet republic would collapse and an independent Ukraine would be “a call to arms against the worker’s and peasant’s revolution.” He saw Bolshevik-style federalism as an interim measure to placate peasants who could not be forbidden to express “nationalist preconceptions” any more than they could be forbidden to pray. One had to wait until the people themselves realized that they had to dispense with notions of national independence. “Nevertheless, in the overall scheme, federalism is preferable to independence and, as a form of union that least provokes the national preconceptions of the backward section of the working mass, this form is quite acceptable.” 19.

            From such a perspective, no empire anywhere could be dissolved, and no national communist party or ministry could exist independent of a centre in the former imperial metropole. Had Russian Bolshevik leaders consistently applied to all Communists these same principles they used to justify their treatment of the UCP, then they would have forced  a Communist Hungary and Germany to subordinate themselves to communist Russia just like Ukraine. But Russian leaders  nowhere considered such notions. Like Larik, they took it for granted  national communist parties  could exist outside, but not within,  the borders of Bolshevik controlled territory. Thus, they allowed communist parties in western European colonies to exist organizationally independent of communist parties in their imperial metropoles. They allowed them separate status within the Comintern apart from their metropolitan parties, while denying such status to the UCP.



1. As revealed in Anatoly Richytsky’s November 1933 police interrogation. DASBU f. 6 sprava 32771 vol 6 p. 186

2. Do Khvyli was translated: P. Potichnyi, ed., On the Current Situation in Ukraine (Ann Arbor, 1970).

3. V. Shakhrai, ed., N. Lenin. Statti po natsionalnomu pytanni Pereklad z Rossiiskoi na Ukrainsku (Saratov, 1919) i–xxviii

4. Chervonyi prapor, 17 April 1919. The Russian edition was confiscated. One hundred Ukrainian copies were allowed into stores – in Saratov. It has yet to be reprinted in Ukraine.

5. Piatakov in July 1918 had backed a failed bid to form a Ukrainian party separate from the Russian and then, the failed Bolshevik uprising in Ukraine that August.  On Do Khvyli: Kommunist (Kyiv), 5 April: (“Vprochem i etu storonu dela dovolno trudno razgliadet; takoe nitovernoe kolichestvo vsiakoi balaganshchiny i slovesnoi trukhi ona soderzhit chto prochetat ee tselikom net nikakoi vozmozhnosti”).

6 .S. Domazar,  “Restavratory holubnykh mrii,” Vyzvolnyi shliakh no. 11 (1969) 1257. Domazar also noted there was an anti-Bolshevik partisan group in Poltava province led by a Mazlakh, which he assumes was  one of Vasyl’s brother. Another of his brothers was in the UNR army.

7. TsDAHO f. 8 op 1 sprava 1 no 4. There is no biography of Shakhrai.  O. Iurenko, “Vasyl Shakhrai. Storinky zhyttia diialnosti,”  Ukrainsky istorychny zhurnal no.1 (1995) 75-76.

8. The CPU was formed in Moscow in July 1918 under the personal supervision of Lenin. Its founding resolution, specifying it would be merely a part of the RCP,  was not published. The subordination was made public at the 8th RCP Congress in March 1919.  V. Iurchuk ed., Komunistychna partiia Ukrainy v rezoliutsiiakh i resheniakh siezdov, konferentsii i plenumov TsK (Kyiv, 1976) I: 24. F. Butsenko, U dni Pershoho ziizdu bilshovykiv Ukrainy (Kyiv, 1958), 42-43.

9.  Protest against the arrest and notice of release: Chervonyi Prapor, 1, 2 April, 1919. On March 25 the paper had published part I of a draft of the proposed UCP Program.

10.  The Kyiv branch of the party published an Open Letter protesting arrests, searches and ideological attacks in Chervonyi Prapor on April 5

11. A.E. Adams, Bolsheviks in the Ukraine. The Second Campaign, 1918-1919 (New Haven, 1963) 227-33.  J. Borys, Sovietization of Ukraine, 1917–1923, 2nd ed. (Edmonton, 1980) 346-50. V. Soldatenko, Heorhiy Piyatakov: myttievosti nespokiino? doli (Kyiv, 2004) the only biography of the man has nothing on his activities or writings during these months.

12. On 8 April 1919  Lenin instructed the party to “realize the unity of Soviet Russia and Ukraine” with respect to rail transport and supplying the Red Army. On 23 April, Moscow secretly instructed the CPU  to fuse (slivat) Ukraine with Russia. S. Kulchytsky, Komunizm v Ukraini. Pershe desiatyrichchia (1919–1928) (Kyiv, 1996), 87. The passage cited by Kulchytsky was not in the Politburo protocols selection published in Izvestiia TsK KPSS, no. 12 (December 1989) 152–3. The full protocols for April 3 were not published either.  Ibid. 141. See also V. Smolyi et al, Vzaiemovidnosyny derzhavy suspilstva i osoby pid chas stvorennia radianskoho ladu na Ukraini (1917-1938) (Kyiv, 2013) I: 375-89

13. Lenin instructed his CPU subordinates to allow 3 Borotbists (Ukrainian left Socialist-Revolutionaries)  into government in early April and to rigorously control those who were.  They were not to impede the intended “fusion”:  “these little shits [merzotniki].” If their demands for separate Ukrainian ministries must conceded, then they were to strictly implement only central orders. He ordered that “if, in the course of making concessions to independentist tendencies it becomes politically necessary in the nearest future to establish within the friendly soviet republics independent commissariats … then there must be strict directives from the corresponding [central] administrative organ explaining that all these independent commissariats work exclusively in, and in strict agreement with, the corresponding RSFSR commissariats.”  Borotbists entered the Bolshevik government in May.  That month a special commission headed by Kamenev specified that the republic structure was a temporary organizational expedient that was to last only for the duration of the war. “And in general, Ukraine and Russia must be fused” he wrote in Pravda. H. Iefimenko, Vzaiemovidnosysny kremlia ta radianskoi Ukrainy: ekonomichnyi aspect (1917–1919) (Kyiv, 2008), 120, 181. TsDAHO f. 1. op 6 sprava 1 no. 4. Lenin stipulated that Moscow was to send all financing directly to its local agencies and not to Ukraine’s soviet government.

14.  By June even Russian centralists sent to Ukraine to “fuse” it with Russia were urging delay and restraint in light of fierce Ukrainian resistance.  By the end of June its once principal agent, Khristian Rakovsky, concluded that the “fusion” policy was “ a left- over of bourgeois imperialist Russian psychology.” Smolyi et al, Vzaiemovidnosyny derzhavy suspilstva,  I: 399-404, 411.

15. “Problemy natsionalnoi osvobozhdenie,” Kommunist (Kyiv), 15 and 18 April 1919.

16.  Kommunist (Kyiv) 15, 18 April (1919).  Larik wrote in response to two articles in Chervony prapor 23 March (1919).

17.  “Chem kumushek schitat trudytsia, ne luchshe li na sebia, kuma, obrotitsia?” and  “Pro internatsionalnu frazu.”

18. The term derives from the name,  Ugrumburg, the last and most awful mayor of  Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s fictional town, Glupov,  in his novel History of a Town (1870).  An idiot,  the man totally destroyed the town only to rebuild it as it was -- but according to a plan.  The story mocked  stupid arbitrary draconian regulations and outlandish projects of the sort enacted by  Aleksii Arakcheev in his military colonies and estate  http://www.historytoday.com/michael-jenkins/arakcheev-and-military-colonies.

19. Kommunist (Kyiv), 1 May 1919.